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I’m a bit late in writing this up, but couldn’t let it go without a post (Yes, I actually like Yoko Ono).

About a week ago I took the train down to Newcastle to see the city and visit the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art to see the Yoko Ono retrospective.

I should start by saying that the Baltic is a fantastic gallery. Converted from a flour mill, there are lots of wide gallery spaces and a fantastic high ceilinged atrium on the top floor.

Before I get to talking about the exhibition, two caveats:

1)  People who think Ono broke up the Beatles generally don’t like her art.  If you are one of these people, I recommend you read my posts on more popular topics.  Like nude opera or Alan Rickman.

2)  Yoko Ono’s aesthetic is a bit twee and occasionally painfully earnest.  I like it.  Some of the artworks seem politically naive in 60s, long haired hippy sense.  But they are from the 60s, so you can take it in the spirit of the decade.

That is why my favourite works were the earlier ones.  The early 60s short poetry pieces like ‘Paintings’, ‘Play it by Trust’ the giant chess set with only white pieces (1966) “Chess set for playing as long as you can remember where all your pieces are”, ‘Cut Piece’ (1965) and  ‘Amaze’ (1971).

‘Cut Piece’ is a performance work filmed originally in 1965 and then again more recently where Ono sits on a stage and invites the audience to cut at her clothes with scissors.  ‘Amaze’ is a clear perspex maze.

The more recent work was generally less interesting, but had some highlights.  ‘Wish Tree’ is a fairly literal interpretation of the Shinto ritual where people tie strips of paper to branches to send prayers and wishes to the Kami within trees.
Here are some I saw visiting Japan a few years ago – in Tokyo:
Outside Tokyo

And in Kyoto:
Fushimi Inari-taisha

I took a sneaky picture of the wish tree in the Baltic exhibition (I’m all for artwork copyright protection, but I think the participation element justifies stealing a picture here):
Wish tree

I took note of some of the more interesting wishes:

“GANSTA [sic] 4 LIFE”

“I want a pony and a stable please”

“I wish I can get a 2nd upper in my law degree”

This one was funny:
Brian's favourite
The text reads: “I wish Patrick-wolf-boy would fall in love with me please x.”

Like Ono’s contribution to the LOVE exhibition I saw last year, the strength of these participatory works is in finding a concept engaging enough to actually get people writing heartfelt, sarcastic and occasionally absurd comments on little tags for the general public to read.  There were two other similar set ups: ‘My Mommy is Beautiful’ (blank canvases for messages of love to mothers) and ‘We are all Water’.  ‘We are all Water’ is a series of glass jars filled with water and  labelled with the names of historical figures (Gertrude Stein sits beside Groucho Marx and 50 cents [sic]) with a final blank jar with cards for visitors to write a name on.

A more interesting recent piece was ‘Helmet’, a development of one of her short poem works ‘A piece of sky’:

Take a piece of sky.
Know that we are
all part of each other.

‘Helmet’ is a small room full of upturned German World War II era helmets suspended from the ceiling, each full of jigsaw puzzle pieces like this:

Sky

Visitors are invited to take a piece of sky.  I like ‘Helmet’ because it was visually striking, and representing war accountability with hundreds of puzzle pieces that individual people hold is neat (I did warn you all it was going to be twee* at the start).

Baltic

*Apologies for the recent overuse of the word ‘twee’ – Unfortunately both a indie pop genre and an appropriate adjective here.

Emin

Tracey Emin is probably the best known of all the Young British Artists after Damien Hirst, and certainly the most famous female YBA. This exhibition currently at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is the first ever independently curated retrospective of Emin’s work.

Her trademark confessional style is most clearly exemplified in My Bed: a bed and collection of items around it displayed as an instillation – intended to be a frank snapshot of her life. The piece was nominated for the Turner prize, but did not win.

The one thing that I find quite annoying about Emin’s work is her use of body fluids in instillations. It isn’t really shocking and it certainly isn’t interesting. An artist must be pretty jaded if they think the only way they can move their audience is through repulsion. I suppose if you were interested in Freud it might be of use in assessing the artist’s stage of psychological development, but if you are more sane than all that it just marks the artist as manipulative and insincere.

What Emin has done successfully is develop a distinctive feminine and political aesthetic, as can be seen in her series of appliqué quilts, starting with a piece she compiled as a résumé listing places she had lived and quotes from her family. Like Damien Hirst she now employs assistants to construct many of her artworks, particularly the pieces in the quilt series (another contentious point for those who don’t buy the Warhol factory argument).

From the galleries I’ve visited this week in Edinburgh it seems that the Scottish are very enthusiastic about maintaining visitor books at art exhibitions. At the Impressionism in Scotland exhibition currently showing at the main galleries I saw a man get quite agitated waiting for a room attendant to bring him a working pen so he could scribble his (profound I’m sure) thoughts on Degas.

I took note of the two most recent comments in the visitors book at the Emin show:

“Margate has a lot to answer for.”

“Overrated. So you can make a collage quilt? No one cares. Stay in bed.”

Conceptualism really shouldn’t be that scary.
Earlier this year I was volunteering at an art gallery in Sydney where people would come and ask me in all earnestness if things in the gallery were art. With the emphasis on ‘art’ as if they might be some other mysterious conceptual thing. No ma’am, it’s a unicorn.

And these questions weren’t even about those weird humidity testing boxes people always observe so intently at the modern art gallery, but rather artworks clearly identified with plaques beside them. I wish people would just calm down about modern art. You can accept these conceptual installations without liking them. A lot of modern art is bad art.

The perfect antidote to the over-hyped Emin exhibition is conveniently located across the road in the Dean Gallery, the extension of the main modern art gallery holding most of the permanent collections.

I spent most of my time in the dada and surrealism gallery – a few small rooms full of lots of interesting paintings by Salvador Dali and Man Ray, Magritte’s only shaped canvas (following the curves of a woman’s hips and lower torso) and an extensive collection of Eduardo Paolozzi’s sculptures. Things that where shocking and different when they were created and still have the power to make you think in a different way. I’m sure people are still making that sort of art. Just maybe not Tracey Emin.

Tracey Emin – 20 Years

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

&

Dean Gallery

Belford Road, Edinburgh

April 2017
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